A Review of the Year: Life, Death, and Parties

Another year has darted past – the quickest yet. It feels as fast as the flicker of a glittering fish tail. However, it’s been good. I’ve been busy, but because of the death of my mother and mother in law, I have felt wary and cautious about going forward, and so have stopped to rest often. In January, after celebrating mum’s life in London with old friends, I decided to spend the year doing ‘stuff’ and ‘seeing’ people. I decided to use the bit of money she left me to go to festivals, visit friends, go to the theatre, and travel. I ended up travelling to England a good deal as my beloved mother in law also died, just before her planned 100th birthday celebrations, so there were funerals and birthday parties to attend, and then anniversary masses to mark. So, my year has been spent doing trips to London, Sheffield, Manchester, Galway, Cyprus, Paris, Armagh, Lebannon, Carlow, Limerick, Clare, Monaghan, Oxford and a fair few weekends in Dublin, either at festivals or in mourning. As I say, busy.

The latest and one of the best of these adventures was in Dublin this week when I went to Jay Gatsby’s party at The Gate. Feathers and beads abounded in the ballroom, the library, backstage, the green room as we pirouetted around, mesmerised by the melancholia and whimsey of Gatsby (in a fabulous pink suit), and the glorious, egotistical self-obsessions of Daisy, Jordan, and Tom who guided us under their wings, hither and thither. The Great Gatsby is such a glitteringly sad story but the party was performed, and choreographed beautifully. I loved it. The immersion technique of theatre is a great tool as the audience experience just how easy it is to get sucked into the splendour, wealth, and minutiae through corruption and greed – topical now too!


The other theatre high light this year was Richard the 111, with King Richard played by Cavan man, Aaron Monaghan. It was the best Shakespeare play I have seen in years (though I didn’t see Hamlet which was raved about by others this Autumn). Monaghan performed the part brilliantly. He brought the lines alive, spat and gilded his words, applying his crippled leg with such menace and acuity. Brilliant. I should also mention Dermot Bolger’s Ulysses at The Abbey. It was fun and witty, the mad cap revelry on stage encouraged me to down load and listen to the book. I wrote Dermot a poem to thank him, and he responded with his usual charm, which was lovely.

For Dermot Bolger

Out of a painting with a tug of ocean drift
Of Irish Sea. Reciting an island of
Magnificence. Half-witted, wedged flesh
Rock hard and crossed, pointed
Carved clods of earth, salted. Chewed
Over and spat, spitting, hissing
Accompanied by sound of still – trill, drill, hillock, pillock
Hattie McDaniel petticoat red. Azure blue
Clip clop. Animals bred and blinkered
Graves, and status, streets of cobbles, of Christ
With glints of urchins, sausage makers
regaling tales of woe and winnings
Regalia, of popes and kings
Girded men and women in panty hose
Winged children with blooming skins
Lawyers, hacks, accounting bills
Drunk and harnessed, vain and varnished
Spent soldiers and story tellers
Acrylic. Unconquered Legend.

As well as listening to Ulysses, this year I have taken up listening to podcasts while I walk Poppins (my dog). So, as I drift over the swards of the golf course, or scramble through the forests, or sit by the rippling lakes watching the swans and ducks, I listen to the New Yorker fiction podcast, The Audio Long Read from the Guardian, the political update, Focus Today, the world service’s The Inquiry, Guardian Books and the World Book Programme. As I result, I have enjoyed many new writers and short stories, learned new scientific and historical facts and discovered much more about the corrupt political activities we humans will engage in to achieve wealth and power than I ever thought possible. Fortunately, my ageing brain discards much of what it hears, but I find I am much more knowledgeable than I was. Listening, I am often horrified by the extremes of life today, and then grateful for the quiet life I lead here in Cavan. Sometimes, I feel guilty for doing so little in response, but then I try to justify myself, citing age. I am 60 next year, thirty years married, and have earned the right to be cranky.

The other high light of my year was the weekend at the Festival of Creative Writing and Ideas in Borris. A friend and I stayed in an Airbnb in Graiguenamanor where I walked along the river early in the mornings before drenching myself in the sunshine and words of beloved authors while stuffing myself with organic chips and lobster. Another highlight was visiting Beirut and discovering the roman ruins of Baalbec; a third was staying in Paris over the Armistice weekend with my daughter (we loved the Picasso Museum, the Marais, the Latin Quarter, les atelier des lumieres and The O’rangerie, not to mention the Chablis and Sancerre) and hanging out with my in laws, nephews and nieces at the 100th birthday party of my mother in law, putting the world to rights was fun. I don’t put the world to rights much anymore and I miss it.



I enjoyed Cuirt last April, in particular the reading and workshop given by Imtiaz Dharker. I am thrilled to have discovered her poetry. The Doolin Festival was a first (I return next month), and Hinterland in Kells has become a regular feature in my festival calendar, as has Bray Festival, which I was thrilled to read at this year.

Unexpectedly, I had my second collection of poetry published (it was not intended), and I was delighted and excited by the reviews it received in The Blue Nib and North. I have not written much this year (a few poems only), nor have I published too much (lots of rejections) though I was delighted to have poems and/or short stories in Crannog, Boyne Berries, North West Words and The Blue Nib. It was enough not feel quashed by total failure.

So, it has been a good year, but as I wrote to my brother on the first anniversary of my mother dying, I feel as if I have been on show, a front-line dancer in the can-can maybe, but no-one else is there and no-one is watching me. Maybe that is what losing your mother means. There is no-one who is as interested in you and what you do as your mother.

And now, a quick review of the books I have read, for aside from festivals and funerals, my daily life is very domestic: I wake early, write, read, walk, swim, cook, read, and watch TV. I have read over 50 books this year, so just a few lines about my favourites.
I found Pachinko by Min Jee Lee fascinating. It is set in Korea/Japan in the 20th century and covers three generations of a family. I enjoyed the Rachel Cusk books. I like the contrast of sketched outline and intense detail. David Grossman’s A Horse Walks Into a Bar is funny, but very painful: an agonised cry of a Jewish stand up comic. I enjoyed The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz which described in detail the violence and misery in the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo dictatorship.

I read Madame Bovary for the first time: sumptuous, ornate, unwieldy passion, with exquisite lies and exaggeration. It took me a long time to read. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nihisi Coates was a visceral experience. It is an enlightening read on the impact of racism on the individual character and personality of people, both black and white, let alone the physical violence and damage it causes. Through my library book club, I was introduced to Sarah Winman. We read the Tin Man: beautifully clear, lucid and poignant writing. The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner, whom I saw in Borris, was a depressing, powerful depiction of the American penitentiary system. I loved the discussion between Margaret Atwood and Ann Enright in Borris too. I also enjoyed reading JG Farrell’s Troubles. It was an extraordinary book on the effects and breakdown of British colonialism. His use of language, simile and metaphor was very rich. I saw David Parks at the John Hewitt Summer School talking about his book, Travelling in a Strange Land. It was beautifully delicate (the book, not the talk). I also loved An Atlas of Impossible Belonging by Anuradha Roy – she captures the vast, never ending depths of the sorrow and loss of love and family. Similarly, in The Emigrants by WG Sebald which has a sepia feel to its pages. Amateur by Thomas Page McKee is a fascinating story detailing the experience of a Trans woman to man and her learning how to be a man through boxing. Milkman, the booker prize winner by Ann Burns is an intense read: powerful, hard going but so clever in its construction. I read in the London Review of Books that it had a happy ending. This is what kept me going. I loved Lotus by Li Jia Chang. I didn’t know about the ‘migrant’ issue in China. I loved how she directly translated the Chinese idioms into English – such beautiful phrases and adages. Talking of language, I also adored Christopher Reid’s The Scattering, recommended by Enda Wyley at the Bailieborough Poetry Festival. It is about the dying and death of his wife. But, in terms of poetry, my happiest discovery this year was Imtiaz Dharker. Her poems are original, express the pain of love and joy through the every day. So many of her poems stick a finger in my belly button. It was so good to meet her, and, also, very exciting to meet Billy Collins in Borris (see poem below), Mchael Longley and Carol Ann Duffy in Dublin two weeks ago.

me n billy collinsSo,

So now, next year, it’s time to be a little more active. Last month I volunteered with Fighting Words in Dublin and so I am looking forward to engaging with other, younger poets. I joined Freedom to Write, a small group from the Irish Writers Centre, highlighting those writers who are imprisoned for their work. I am also on a committee at the Irish Writers Centre which is looking at running a series of talks/events on the impact of Artificial Intelligence. This is so important and topical for the future of the human race. So, in 2019, a little more action. And, also, maybe a little more writing. I am asking Santa for sharpened yellow pencils. I am hoping to get into the forests, find nests of eggs and scribble a trail of ants.

Drooling Admiration

Saliva sluices my gums, pools
Distastefully under my tongue
itself now misshapen and lumpen

in line, razor-edged, tears prick my eyes
My aorta stutters, taps fast at my heart which flutters
Like a caged yellow canary

I sing, ‘I think you’re brilliant’
Flap Billy Collins his book to sign
Drooling admiration all over him

Happy Christmas, everyone!


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